15 Jan 2010, 12:30pm
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Comments Off on Terri’s at it again (part 2 of 2)

Terri’s at it again (part 2 of 2)

In yesterday’s post, I took aim at the alleged¬†“egregious fiscal malfeasance” that local toll-opponent Terri Hall accused ARMA of with regards to their plans for a US 281/Loop 1604 interchange.¬† Today, I’ll take her to task on her claims of “unequal application of the law” with regards to the environmental studies required for the interchange versus those for 281 north of 1604.

In her blog, she first claims that if they (ARMA) would drop the toll prospect for 281, that the northern ramps of the interchange could be built now with stimulus funds.¬†¬†Now I know she believes that she autocratically controls what will be required for that stretch of road, but she is just plain wrong.¬† Because of the furor she has created (more on that in a minute), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has indicated in no uncertain terms that a full environmental impact statement (EIS) must be done for the 281 north project.¬† Whether the project will be tolled or not is irrelevant to them at this point because any project, tolled or not, will likely have similar– if not the same– physical footprints, and so they want to make sure all the i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed before issuing any approvals.¬† It’s their decision¬†as to¬†what¬†is required, not Ms. Hall’s, and they’ve already said they want an EIS before anything is done.

The environmental process
This might be a good point to take a brief sidebar and explain the environmental study process.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 requires all projects on federal-aid roads to undergo environmental review.  There are essentially three levels of possible review: a Categorical Exclusion (CE), where the agency building the road can demonstrate that the proposed improvements will not cause any harm on the basis of previous experience (this is used for most relatively minor improvements to existing roads); an Environmental Assessment (EA), which is a basic study of the possible effects of a project to see if further study is warranted; and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is the most intensive and comprehensive study.  Typically, engineers know what types of projects fit into which category of review, but sometimes a CE or EA may find something that then requires the next higher level of study.  (You can read more about this process on Wikipedia.)

Why an EIS for 281?
So how did we get to the point of having to do an EIS for 281?¬† The finger is squarely pointed at Terri Hall herself.¬† When she moved here from California, TxDOT already had federally-approved EAs for the “original” toll-free project that would have expanded US 281¬†from 1604 to Stone Oak to a six-lane expressway with overpasses and frontage roads.¬† When the edict came from Austin in 2003¬†to change it to a toll project and work began on the first tollway iteration in 2005, Terri Hall ¬†joined forces with the¬†environmental group Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA) to sue to get those EAs voided.¬† TxDOT and FHWA agreed that¬†a combined¬†EA for the corridor might be¬†better than the¬†patchwork EAs done previously.¬† When that combined EA was completed and approved by FHWA, Terri Hall and AGUA sued again demanding that an EIS be done instead.¬† I’m not sure if she na√Įvely¬†believed that an EIS might find an issue with tolling the road that would cause the toll option to be dropped or if she was just using an EIS to stall the project in hopes that the political or funding¬†climate might change in the meantime.¬† In any case, during the discovery process for that lawsuit, TxDOT discovered some irregularities in the new EA and withdrew it.¬† Regardless of how it played out, it was Terri Hall¬†who wanted– no, demanded– an EIS and now¬†that she’s got it, she’s upset about it.¬† This is an object lesson in the old adage “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

The interchange project, on the other hand,¬†is being submitted to FHWA as a CE.¬† Terri believes that a project that adds all those tall ramps and auxiliary lanes certainly demands the same level of scrutiny that the 281 project now requires, that being an EIS.¬† She asserts that adding the auxiliary lanes is a way to add capacity to both 1604 and 281 while circumventing an EIS.¬† But, as usual, she doesn’t have full grasp of the facts.¬† First of all, the 281 project has never qualified for a CE since its inception as a toll-free expressway, so there’s absolutely no way it would qualify for one now.¬† Regardless of whether it is built tolled or toll-free, it will require adding a lot of new pavement (more than double what’s there today) on a bunch of new right-of-way, relocating lots of utilities, and dramatically changing drainage and traffic patterns.¬† This is far more invasive than adding elevated connectors above existing controlled-access highways¬†entirely on¬†existing right-of-way.¬† Even adding the auxiliary lanes is not as invasive because, once again,¬†those lanes are added onto existing controlled-access highways within the existing right-of-way.¬†¬†Because the impacts of¬†the interchange are trivial relative to what’s there today, it fits the qualifications for a CE.¬† The 281 project, which¬†is¬†orders of magnitude¬†more invasive,¬†was approved under a two¬†seperate¬†EAs, but because of the previous¬†lawsuits filed by Terri Hall and AGUA and the ensuing controversy, FHWA is now requiring an EIS.¬† Terri Hall calls this hypocrisy, but the real hypocrisy here is that she made her own bed in this case and now she’s having to lie in it.

Flawed logic
Lastly, I think it’s evident that Ms. Hall is trying to assert¬†logic about the local application of the environmental process that is contradictory to her pronounced convictions.¬† She seems to think that ARMA and TxDOT are intentionally causing the 281 project to be delayed while fast-tracking¬†other,¬†non-toll projects.¬† But her stated belief is that TxDOT and ARMA are chomping at the bit to build toll roads as some sort of money-grab.¬† If that were indeed true, why then would they want to intentionally delay those projects?¬† And, if delaying projects helps make the case for tolling them, why would they fast-track these¬†toll-free projects, especially ones that were previously determined to be toll-worthy?¬†

It is deeply disturbing to me that Terri has taken aim at this project.¬†¬†ARMA and the MPO have done a great job securing funding to get it built toll-free, and¬†the project’s engineers have also done a good job thinking beyond the interchange itself and providing additional improvements to both 281 and 1604.¬† This is a good project that’s long-overdue and frankly, in my opinion,¬†her¬†histrionics about it only serve to further¬†undermine and discredit her.

 

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